Wood's Fisheries Article: Florida Monthly Magazine

Posted by: Wood's Fisheries on 10/1/2008

Gulf American Shrimp Farm, Port St. Joe, Florida

This article was originally published in Florida Monthly Magazine - October 2008

Modern Shrimp Farm on the Gulf Coast

Gulf American Shrimp, LLC is a 300-acre shrimp farm located on the old M & K property in the Howard Creek area of Gulf County. Gulf American Shrimp has been in existence for four years and is in its third year of production. The shrimp farm is one of less than 10 commercial shrimp farms in the United States, most of which are located in Southeast Texas.

The idea of shrimp farming began with a group of Japanese biologists who studied the life cycle of shrimp. The biologists came to the United States approximately 40 years ago and pitched came to the United States approximately 40 years ago and pitched their idea to the research development team with DuPont. Although DuPont turned the proposal down, the idea of shrimp farming caught the interest of two members of the R & D team, who then filed patents. In fact, one of the first U. S. shrimp farms was located in Panama City -- Marifarms, Inc. -- which was started using private funds and remained in business for 10 to 15 years.

Mark Godwin, Edward Wood and Buddy Wood are the three owners that operate Gulf American Shrimp, LLC. Mark researched shrimp farming for two years and began to look for possible farm locations before starting their own farm. The M & K property was originally sold to a group of Japanese, Tachikawa International Corporation, who raised catfish and hybrid striped bass for 10 years before Mark began operating the shrimp farm in this location. After conducting his own feasibility studies, Mark used a consultant out of Georgia to confirm his thoughts of developing a commercial-size shrimp farm on this site. Next, they invested in drilling a test well, the only one of its kind in the Panhandle. In drilling the well, it was found that there was sufficient saltwater at 1,000 feet. This was a promising sign that the property was suitable for shrimp farming.

In the farm's first year, Mark developed 25 acres of the property to raise shrimp but did not stock the ponds. The second year, Mark stocked one four-acre pond as a trial run, and things went well. Today, six ponds are stocked, making up all of the originally developed 25 acres. The ponds are stocked in late spring with post larval shrimp from Key West, which is the home to one of two commercial-sized shrimp hatcheries in the United States. The other hatchery is located in Texas.

The ponds are ideally stocked the first week in May. Mark, along with William Raffield, who also works on the farm, must be at the farm at daylight for the first water test and feeding of the day. Several readings are taken to check the quality of the water, making sure that the levels of oxygen and salt are where they need to be. The number of aerators is then adjusted to obtain the appropriate oxygen levels. In the late afternoon, feed is blown into the ponds, and the water quality readings are taken again. The pond's water quality is something that must be carefully monitored. If anything is in question, a third set of readings is taken at dark. Improper algae growth can lead to a pond crashing, which could mean a significant loss of shrimp.

"In shrimp farming there are day-to-day activities that you can't get behind on," Mark said.

Farms that raise shrimp inland are now considered to be more biosecure than those of a coastal farm because the shrimp raised at these farms are not susceptible to contracting viruses that occur naturally in the wild. Farm-rasied shrimp typically allow for more control on the size and expected quantities harvested than shrimp caught in the wild. Something that early shrimp farm pioneers didn't realize was that certain species of shrimp are better suited for being farm raised. and species that may prosper in the wild are not necessarily the best species to be farm-raised. There are two species of shrimp that make up nearly 95 percent of all farm-raised shrimp in the world. Shrimp farmers have always been dependent on research centers and universities to assist them in the necessary technology needed for shrimp farming. Viruses that occur naturally in wild shrimp do not materialize because the shrimp are usually not stressed. These viruses most commonly affect survival and growth rates and have no negative impacts for human consumption. The shrimp used on their farm are certified at the hatchery as Specific Pathogen Free, or SPF, meaning that they have no viruses. If these viruses were to become present on a farm, it could take approximately four to five years to get rid of the virus. Gulf American Shrimp, LLC only purchases SPF-certified shrimp, operates according to the Department of Agriculture's Best Management Practices and is inspected once a year.

The shrimp are usually ready for harvest by the second week of October. This gives the shrimp approximately 165 days to grow, which produces a 15-count shrimp. When it is time to harvest the shrimp, the ponds are drained and the shrimp are pumped into insulated containers holding ice water with a harvester pump. This process starts about an hour before daylight and they are usually through by 2 pm. The shrimp are then transported nearly live to their processing facility in Port St. Joe.

The shrimp are processed at their processing plant located in nearby Port St. Joe, Wood's Fisheries, Inc. Mark's wife Catherine and brother-in-law, Edward, are the fifth generation in the commercial shrimping business, which started for the Wood family in the early 1860s. They are one of the most vertically integrated businesses in the shrimp industry. They participate in the production of farm-raised shrimp; unload commercial shrimp boats; and process, store, sell and distribute shrimp. Because of this level of involvement, it could be considered as six different seafood businesses under one roof. The fishery is under the leadership of Mark's father-in-law, Buddy Wood, who serves as CEO of the company.

The majority of the shrimp processed at Wood's Fisheries are frozen and packaged into either two- or five-pound bag. All are sold wholesale in 20-pound cases. Their specialized freezing process allows for a long shelf life. Mark says that a serious misconception that most people have is that frozen shrimp are not fresh; when in fact, he considers the freshest shrimp to be frozen.

"Our freezing process stops the aging process so that when they are finally used by the end customer, they are the highest quality state possible," Mark said. "There is nothing worse than seeing someone trying to hold unfrozen shrimp too long and sacrifice quality the whole way. Most people, even those that handle shrimp regularly, do not know how to handle a true fresh shrimp correctly."

Unlike most species of fish, freezing shrimp will not affect their texture or flavor at all. Most shrimp that are caught in the wild are indeed frozen on-board commercial shrimp boats, as these trimps typically last for two to three weeks.

The shrimp processed at Wood's Fisheries, Inc. are sold in the wholesale market all over the United States under their brand name Seakist. Some have even by exported to other countries. However, imported shrimp are Wood's Fisheries largest competitor. Shrimp farms in places like Thailand, China and Vietnam can usually produce shrimp much cheaper than they can be produced in the United States. Approximately 90 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported, with domestic wild-caught and domestic farmed-raised shrimp making up the other 10 percent. Therefore, in a commodities market, this limited percentage of domestic supply is really not great enough to inluence the commodities' price. Mark says that he and his family have to continue to educate people about their product through methods like advertising on television stations such as Food Network, cooking and trade shows and facility tours.

"The most frustrating part of shrimp farming is the variables that you just can't control," Mark said. "You just can't fit shrimp farming into a box. There's a lot of educated guesswork involved; sometimes you make decisions by the seat of your pants."

Uncontrollable variables, just as other farmers experience, include the weather; natural predators; limited post larval shrimp suppliers; and rising feed, fuel and utility costs, which lead to increased operating costs.

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